Working Paper n°2017-16 – Janos Kornai and General Equilibrium Theory


Mehrdad Vahabi, CEPN, UMR-CNRS 7234, Université Paris 13, Sorbonne Paris Cité –


This paper explores the evolution of Kornai’s thought on General Equilibrium Theory (GET) and his position on mainstream economics. Three moments in this evolution will be highlighted starting by rejecting GET and advocating disequilibrium in Anti-Equilibrium (1971). While Kornai does not treat the ‘equilibrium paradigm’ as irrelevant, he suggests an alternative paradigm, namely economic systems theory that he further develops in the eighties as ‘system paradigm’. Economics of Shortage (1980) marks a second phase in which Kornai distinguishes Walrasian equilibrium from normal state or Marshallian equilibrium. In this phase, he supports Marshallian equilibrium rather than disequilibrium. Finally By Force of Thought (2006) is a critical self-appraisal in which Kornai considers Anti-Equilibrium as a ‘failure’ and acknowledges GET as a benchmark of an ideal competitive market. He now advocates a Walrasian equilibrium as an abstract reference model but refuses to consider this model as a description of reality. In this sense, he refuses the New Classical economics. Paradoxically however, his original heterodox concept of ‘soft budget constraint’, irreconcilable with standard microeconomics, has been integrated in new microeconomics as an optimal intertemporal strategy of a maximizing agent in the absence of credible commitments. It will be argued that Kornai’s so-called failure is rather related to his half-in, half-out mainstream position, while his institutionalist system paradigm is still a heterodox research project of the future.

Keywords: Disequilibrium, Economic Systems Theory, General Equilibrium Theory, Marshallian and Walrasian Equilibrium, New Microeconomics, Normal State, System Paradigm

JEL Codes: B3, D5, E1, E7, P2, P5

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